A Complete Guide to Building Distributed Teams from Scratch
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Managing Distributed Teams
Distributed teams are an unfair advantage in the marketplace. They allow organisations to grow to near unlimited size, pick up the best technical talent from around the globe, and create an environment built for success. While large organisations are focused on re-building office-based teams, the opportunity to build distributed teams of world-class technical staff is there for the taking.
To do this, the way we think about recruiting staff for engineering, management, and design roles has to change. The most effective and most efficient way to build a distributed team is to do so from the ground up. Prioritising remote staff first instead of creating compromise later ensures long term stability and secures the best technical talent available.
While building a new way of working may feel like a daunting challenge, the rewards are well worth the effort. Distributed teams are more engaged, performant, and productive than their co-located counterparts.
Organisations with the flexibility and capabilities to adapt to change are creating attractive opportunities for talented technical staff to invest their time and energy into. This shift in balance, between in-office organisations and distributed teams, is enabling small start-ups and companies to secure a sizeable competitive advantage over organisations with larger budgets, bigger space, and a leading head-start.
Throughout this guide to building and managing distributed teams, we’ll highlight the steps needed to bring this competitive advantage into your organisation and start building the technical teams that make the difference for you.
Key Benefits of Distributed Teams
Conventional thinking has dictated for years that office-based staff outperform remote work on productivity and output. Entire organisations have, quite literally, bet the house on it.
Now, conventional thinking about how and when we work has been turned on its head.
Distributed teams have proven to be more productive, cost-effective, and efficient than co-located ones. Organisations have been shown to benefit from enhanced productivity, performance, and a near-unlimited talent pool while saving thousands per year.
Teams too are benefiting from the improved environment, increased engagement, and flexibility that comes with remote work.
For both organisations and their teams, shifting to a distributed model of work has shown to be one of the most cost-effective and performant ways of boosting productivity and performance.
Benefits to Managing Distributed Teams
- Productivity. Adding flexibility and autonomy to teams has been shown to make the most of time spent on task and lead to creating products with fewer quality issues
- Cost-Effective. Even for identical salary and compensation levels, distributed teams save large amounts of money on rent and resources. The average savings for a company based in the US hiring a remote employee is upwards of $10,000
- Added Value For Teams. More than half of employees surveyed have said they would change jobs for one that added additional flexibility. Distributed teams are a strong incentive and a great benefit advertise, allowing employers to choose from highly-rated individuals
- Engagement. Improving team autonomy and their environment has been shown to lead to 41% lower rates of absenteeism in staff
- Flexibility. Now ranked as one of the most important benefits valued by staff, providing flexibility in hours, environment, and work is an invaluable boost in the office day-to-day
- Access to a Large and Diverse Talent Pool. Without needing to recruit from a local area, city, or even country—distributed teams allow organisations access to an almost unlimited pool of technical talent
Conventional thinking has seen the challenges of managing distributed teams as a risk to overcome. In reality, the level of risk in maintaining old ways of working is just as staggeringly high. Organisations shifting to distributed models have shown a 12% reduction in turnover as a result of improvements made here.
While the advantages of distributed teams are there to be readily picked up for the right organisation, the change to a remote model isn’t something that happens overnight. As a major shift to your organisation, it’s something that takes planning, management, and care from beginning to end.
Starting with hiring the right teams for building distributed work to managing, tracking, and equipping your team for success—our Pangea 5-step guide to building distributed teams has you covered when it comes to creating a competitive advantage.
The timing has never been better to begin building high-quality, experienced, and enthusiastic distributed teams.
5 Steps to Building Your Distributed Team
1. Hire the Right Team Members
While experience in this field was a somewhat rare attribute 5+ years ago, technical staff are increasingly experienced in working as part of remote and distributed teams now. Developers, designers, and managers with just a few years in the industry are likely to have worked remotely for at least some of that time.
Experience here can be a huge boost to getting your team set up and quickly up to speed. Often, professionals experienced in distributed teams can even bring additional expertise, tips, and best practices from other environments.
Hiring well is more than 80% of the challenge when it comes to building well-functioning, highly productive teams.
With technical abilities assumed, soft skills should be given a high priority when it comes to distributed work. Team members who are self-motivated, excel at communication, and are flexible in approach are worth their weight in gold when it comes to distributed environments.
With the right team members in place, the last responsibility in good hiring practices is to provide the space, autonomy, and resources to work to their best ability. Trust and confidence, when you’ve hired the right team, is key to their success.
2. Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities
Groundwork plays a huge role in the success of remote teams. The most important groundwork you can do to ensure remote success is to define the roles, tasks, and areas of concern that will make up the day-to-day challenges.
Roles and responsibilities should set expectations and create an environment where everyone knows precisely what is needed to succeed and even excel in their role.
Doing this is a balancing act between describing responsibilities in broad strokes while being prescriptive enough to align everyone on communication, reporting, and deadlines. Remote teams should be flexible enough and maintain enough autonomy to manage their own workloads while avoiding tasks falling through the cracks.
Ensuring everyone is on the same page when it comes to roles and responsibilities is a milestone when it comes to managing distributed teams.
3. Make Quality Communication a Priority
All teams thrive on strong communication. Distributed teams value good communication even higher than most. Timescales, physical location, tools, products and even deadlines can all be changed to some degree—as long as communication remains consistent.
Setting up multiple channels of communication is critical to both short and long-term success. These channels should include ways for internal groups to communicate on discrete tasks and features and broad ways of reaching everyone at once.
Using real-time communication solutions such as Slack, G-suite, or Microsoft Teams is an easy and effective way to set up these channels.
Establishing a positive environment with these solutions can go a long way to improving cohesion and productivity. Here, informal jokes, memes, and stories are just as vital as on-topic queries and questions.
If there was one golden rule that should never be broken when it comes to managing distributed teams, it’s that more communication is always better.
4. Track Outcomes Not Input
It’s surprisingly easy to get stuck in a mindset that values time over results. Measuring work done by the number of hours put in at the office is something we’ve gotten used to over many, many years. Yet, it does nothing to measure how effectively time has been spent or the quality of the product that has resulted.
One of the key reasons distributed teams value their autonomy so highly is the ability to unwind this relationship and focus on results and quality over hours spent.
For management, it’s critical to ensure metrics track the quality of outcomes rather than a poor approximation such as lines of code, hours spent online, or other questionable statistics.
Valuable questions to track your team’s outcomes:
- How much quality software was produced in the last month?
- Is our development velocity stable, predictable, and sustainable?
- Are our teams demonstrating continuous improvement?
Taking the working environment out of the office inevitably results in reduced visibility. Assessing teams by quality metrics, however, reduces the need for visibility and ensures all members are being measured against a fair and reliable value.
5. Use the Right Tools for the Job
Distributed teams and remote working arrangements are thriving today in a way that they couldn’t 20 years ago.
Back when the internet was just beginning to reach its first boom in popularity there were countless op-eds, TV segments, and articles written about how it was about to transform how we work and live. In truth, the infrastructure and tools weren’t in place for that to happen in a widespread and reliable way yet.
Today, we have more highly capable tools than we could have ever imagined back then. Modern tooling and infrastructure makes distributed organisations easily possible and empowers companies to thrive with organisational structures that are modern and diverse.
Getting the right tools in place and using them well is key to ensuring the success of your distributed teams. Our Pangea list of essential tools for distributed teams includes:
- Real-time chat. Essential for immediate interaction, collaboration, and discussion within and between teams. An invaluable tool used every day: real-time chat allows for team-building, communication, resource sharing, and instant documentation
- Project Management Tools. Acting as a centralised information source, the right project management tool will be a touchstone for everyone to check in, update progress, and stay on the same page over the duration of a project. Popular options include Jira, Trello, Asana, and Monday
- Video Conferencing Solution. Real-time meetings are an invaluable source of information and updates. Sometimes it’s a boost just to check in every once in a while. Zoom, slack, G-suite, and Skype are leading options in the field. Shifting the daily scrum and weekly catch up to video meetings are an easy switch that makes distributed working as simple as a co-located solution
Managing Distributed Teams
Shifting to a distributed model today isn’t the huge paradigm shift that it was five or ten years ago. It’s routinely being done. Many professionals are already experienced and skilled in remote and distributed environments—even preferring it over a co-located one.
Now, there’s an excellent chance that some of the companies you interface with regularly are leaning on a distributed model of work without even being readily apparent.
While some larger organisations lacking in flexibility are returning to an early 2000s model of working this year, nimble and forward-looking companies have the opportunity to capitalise on an intensely strong competitive advantage.
Creating greater efficiency, securing top talent, and building better products than key players in the market—the opportunity to build world-class teams in your organisation is there for the taking.